Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 1/25/10
1:14 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Let me read just one short, quick statement before we get started.
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of the passengers on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 in Beirut, Lebanon last night. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those who lost loved ones. The United States commends the government of Lebanon and the United Nations rescue workers in their immediate response and recovery effort."
And with that, Ms. Loven.
Q The middle class initiatives that the President and Vice President outlined today, would you expect that to be essentially the laundry list of new initiatives that we might see in the State of the Union? Or will there be more, sort of, new announcements, new proposals that he plans to put forward on Wednesday?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as is my desire, I don't want to get too far ahead of the man who will make a speech on that in a couple of days.
I think you will see a series of ideas that the President will outline that fall into a few different categories: how to get our economy back on a firmer foundation, and how do we create an atmosphere in the private sector that lends itself to more hiring; what do we do to put our government back on firmer footing with the middle class, and along with that, what ideas do we have for changing the way Washington works so that people in this country feel like the middle class is getting as fair a shake as the special interests.
Q But, for example, when he talks about jobs creation, as you mentioned, getting the private sector to hire -- are those likely to be ideas that we haven't heard yet? Or is he going to be -- you know, give more detail or just a push to the green jobs --
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, I think there will be a series of things that the President will talk about, Jennifer. I just don't want to get too far ahead of where the President will -- what the President will do and say on a number of things, including, to finish my list, the actions that will begin to recognize what many middle class families are having to do each and every day, and that is make spending decisions based on their income, not on -- and ensuring that government is doing the same thing and getting ourselves back on a path to fiscal responsibility in the medium and the long term.
The President will also spend some time talking about our efforts to combat terrorism and efforts that have been ongoing for the first year on foreign policy.
Q And can you say definitively that the addition of David Plouffe to the sort of broader team is the last change or the only change you guys plan to make in the near future?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not aware of others. I will say this -- I think David's -- the President asking him to give some extra time I think might have been a tad overwritten in the sense of, this is not him taking over every campaign in 2010 -- meaning David Plouffe. This is not -- this is about him working internally on strategy with the folks that are already here. I think you heard David Axelrod say this yesterday, that there's a game that gets played a lot in this town that calls for the ritual sacrifice of someone or some group of people.
Q Well, maybe not sacrifice, but bringing in other people.
MR. GIBBS: I know of no other personnel changes.
Q The administration has made clear in recent days that despite the increasingly rancorous debate over Bernanke's confirmation as -- for a second term as Fed Chairman, that it expects that he will in fact be reconfirmed. But the Fed has two key missions: promoting full employment and keeping prices in check. Given that the jobless rate has risen to 10 percent, does the President think Bernanke has done a good job in meeting the Fed's mandate on jobs?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, the President took into account a lot of tasks that the Fed does. Obviously the tools that it has on monetary policy, given interest rates, are not -- their options are not great. But the President had to make a series of -- went through a series of decisions, as you know, last year in appointing Ben Bernanke to serve in a second term.
Obviously, as we talked about last week, there are a number of -- there's still a great amount of anxiety in our economy, but Chairman Bernanke helped the President and the economic team steer through some very turbulent times and rough waters.
As I said yesterday, I believe that it sends a signal to greater and overall stability to have his nomination approved without political games, and that's what we expect will happen later this week.
Q But is the White House worried that an unexpectedly difficult debate over his confirmation could damage confidence in the Fed and the financial markets, both domestically and internationally, and that this could further weaken the dollar?
MR. GIBBS: Again, our position is that it shouldn't. I think, again, this is a -- as we all know, this is an extremely important appointment. I think that senators are making up their minds and announcing their decisions, hopefully based on going through an important set of criteria. And I think, again, this is an important opportunity to demonstrate greater stability in our overall system by approving his renomination for another term at the Fed.
Q Thanks, Robert. I want to follow up on jobs. One of the themes that Scott Brown ran on was that the Obama administration was spending too much money and not doing enough to create jobs. Whether that was true or not, why then would your first initiative be -- since that election, the new initiative -- spend more government money, with things that may not really create more jobs?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Ed, the initiatives that the President is focused on aren't necessarily married up to a special elections political timeline.
Q But will they create jobs?
MR. GIBBS: I think there are a series of proposals that the President has made that will continue to create an atmosphere that allows the private sector to hire more; that addresses the anxiety that middle class families in this country feel each and every day, their anger and frustration about a safe and secure retirement; that with having to work harder and longer, that there -- have a tax cut that will help on their child care expenses. I think all of that goes to the type of economic anxiety that people felt in this country last week, last year.
But Ed, as I've described here, this is something that they have felt for many years, feeling like their jobs weren't securing; again, feeling like they were working longer and harder for less money; feeling like they didn’t have the type of security that they needed. Health care fits into that. Energy prices fits into that. I think there's a tendency to silo different things -- or put issues in different silos when, in fact, the anxiety that is felt in this country around a weak economy manifests itself in many, many ways.
Q So is the President's role now partly to deal with the anxiety of the middle class but not necessarily create jobs? Because child care, student loan relief, it could be helpful to people, but how does that lead a small business to hire somebody?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the proposals that the President outlined in December lead small businesses to be in a position to hire more people. The President -- what the President outlined today was if you're trying to figure out how you're going to go back to school so you can get that next job, we don't want you to be crushed by the burden of skyrocketing tuition payments. Right? If you're having to work longer to pay the bills, we want to make sure that if you're in the middle class you're getting help on your child care expenses.
I can assure you there are people in Massachusetts and across the 50 states that struggle with those problems each and every day. That's part of that anxiety. But, Ed, this isn’t a new role for the President. Addressing that anxiety has been there since the day he walked into office.
Q Can I just ask on the stimulus, Republicans have already jumped on the fact that yesterday you and two other officials gave what appeared to be three different answers on how many jobs were created or saved by the stimulus last year. David Axelrod said over 2 million jobs saved or created. You said 1.5 million. And Valerie Jarrett was a little more careful in saying, thousands and thousands. Does that add to the confusion for the American people trying to figure out did this stimulus work or not, if you’ve got three different answers about what it's done?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the report that came out two weeks ago from the Council of Economic Advisers gave the number of 1.5 million to 2 million in jobs -- 1.5 [million] to 2 million jobs saved or created. Maybe I'm guilty of being less of a glass half full kind of guy than David Axelrod. But I think the answers that were given are consistent with the range that CEA --
Q But didn’t you also say a week or so ago that you would not used "saved or created" anymore because Christina Romer was saying it wasn’t certainly the best way to present it?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the answers that we gave on Sunday were based on the report that came out I think the 13th or 14th of January, that has the numbers that David and I and Valerie used in it. So I would point you to that report.
Q Robert, I have two questions, the first one focusing on the midterm elections. There's been a lot of Democrats who are now sort of drawing parallels between what happened in 1994 and what might be happening in 2010. And Marion Barry is quoted in an article saying that the President said to one group behind the scenes that the difference here between -- here and 1994 was that, "You've got me." Did the President actually say that, and what does that mean?
MR. GIBBS: I have not talked to the President about that.
Q I mean, is that a message that the President is broadcasting on the Hill, maybe privately, that he somehow can mitigate some of these losses?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't -- I hope it's not newsworthy to think that the President hopes and expects to be an effective campaigner in the midterm elections.
Q Do you think that the President didn't say this?
MR. GIBBS: I haven't talked to him, Yunji, so I don't know the answer to that.
Q Moving on then to a Gallup poll that's out that says the President is the most polarizing -- his approval ratings are the most polarizing of any President in their first year; that 88 percent of Democrats approve, but just 23 Republicans -- 23 percent of Republicans agree with that. Why do you think that the President is received so differently by these two groups?
MR. GIBBS: I think we live in a very divided country.
Q Wasn't he supposed to change that?
MR. GIBBS: And he's worked hard to do that. But, again, as we've talked about here, Yunji, we -- you can't change the way Washington works if some people don't want to change the way this place works.
Q So are you blaming Washington for that kind of public perception?
MR. GIBBS: I'm saying that Washington has been a polarizing place for quite some time. I think this is a deeply divided country and it has been for quite some time as well.
Q Does the President think his bonanza bank bonuses contributed to this downfall --
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry?
Q -- political downfall?
MR. GIBBS: Say again?
Q The bonuses that angered the American people --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I --
Q -- and also the middle class, the poor feeling left behind?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think there are a number of things that over the course of the past year or two years has led to a greater anger and frustration in the American public about the direction of our economy.
There's no doubt that long before bonuses I would -- look, I think the President has said and would say again that looking simply at the point at which we got to having to bail out a series of huge banks that took excessive risk, gambled away our money, and then expected us to prevent them from taking the economy over the cliff caused an enormous amount of anxiety in this country; that the President said that nobody wanted to have to be in a position of doing that, understanding that the flipside of that was watching the economy go over the cliff. It was not a popular decision, but one that regrettably had to be done.
I do think we are now in an environment, though, where -- and we talked a little about this last week, in terms of financial reform and the President's proposal on Thursday about certain activities the banks could or couldn't be involved in -- we have to create an environment through financial reform that never puts the taxpayer in the position again of, in essence, being held hostage to or held hostage by a bank like that.
That's why we need rules of the road that are different from what we had in September of 2008 and before that that created that environment. That's why we need different roles moving forward. And I think that's why one of the things the President will spend quite a bit of time talking about in the State of the Union are those new rules, what he would find acceptable on that.
Now, Ed, to build off of what you said, you may look at financial reform as not something that necessarily does or does not create jobs, but I think creating a framework of certainty on what the rules of the road are goes directly to both economic anxiety as well as that new foundation that the President has always spoken about that creates an atmosphere for hiring in this country.
Q Can the banks be trusted to become more aware?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think some people have taken steps to limit compensation. I think some have taken steps to change the way bonuses are awarded in terms of different types of compensation, Helen. But I don't think anybody here would say that all of their actions meet with a commonsense test of what you -- would match that commonsense test that most of us would give them each day about whether they understand what's going on in this country, and understand the level of anxiety around their actions, based on what the taxpayers had to do in ensuring that they didn't go over the edge with our economy.
Q Can you shake them?
MR. GIBBS: I think that, again, through financial regulatory reform, we created an environment in which they're unable to -- they're unable to, through their excessive risk-taking, which, again, we would hope to move backwards, but also not allowing them to be able to once and for all take us over that cliff.
Q Following up on that poll that Yunji mentioned, I mean, it really is pretty remarkable that the President would talk so much about reaching across the aisle is now the President who presides over the most polarized Washington in a very long time, are you suggesting that he does not share in the blame for that? Does he not share in the blame for that?
MR. GIBBS: No. I think everybody in Washington share the blame. But again, Chip, I think we've discussed this here. I mean, how many time has the filibuster been used in -- how many times was the filibuster used in 2009?
Q I can't give you a number --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I'm not --
Q -- but it was a lot.
MR. GIBBS: -- I'm sorry, it was more of a rhetorical question.
Q But was used a lot by Democrats, too.
MR. GIBBS: Right. But, again, what I'm saying is it was -- not to give credence to when it was used in the past, but understand I think we've found it remarkable, and I think most people would find it remarkable the level that it has been used on things that ultimately ended up being, through the ultimate approval of the legislation, non-controversial.
When you filibuster something that is ultimately approved with 88 or 90 votes, what were you filibustering?
Q Well, I mean, the standard that anything remotely controversial needs 60 votes has been around for a while. It wasn't invented by Republicans last year.
MR. GIBBS: No, but it's been employed with great regularity in a sense I think unseen before.
Q I think they would argue that the reason is that this President hasn’t been willing to -- other than talk to them, he hasn’t been willing to really reach across the aisle and compromise with them.
MR. GIBBS: You know, we can go back and forth on this. But if you -- what do you think they would say on something they ultimately voted for 88-10? I mean, I think it's -- you know, I think that in and of itself --
Q Isn't that a diversion, though, because they weren’t really trying to block it, that was just -- the 60 votes has just become standardized. It's pretty much becomes standardized under Democrats, too.
MR. GIBBS: I would say I think that goes to the gamesmanship that gets played in this town that people throughout this country are simply tired of watching.
Q On the middle class proposals, President Clinton, of course, was famous for small-bore or modest proposals that did not do a tremendous amount, they didn't change -- they weren't change in any big way but they were very politically popular. Is that what this is modeled after?
MR. GIBBS: No. This -- increasing the child and dependent care tax credit was something the President talked about in the campaign. A system of automatic IRAs, increasing the saver's credit for retirement savings, are all things that the President talked about in his campaign. The first bill he ever introduced in the United States Senate had to do with college affordability -- in that case, increasing Pell Grants; in this case, ensuring that somebody doesn't -- somebody is not prevented from going to college because they simply can't afford it.
And if they have to borrow money, as millions and millions of people do, that they don't find themselves on the other end of that, particularly in an economy where jobs are hard to come by, crushed by the overwhelming payments that have to come in paying that loan back. I think -- it's been a while since I was in college, but I think you have -- I think there's a six-month period once you get out of college to when you start paying that loan back -- at least that's my memory from my college days.
I think a proposal that doesn't find a recent college graduate trying desperately to find a job crushed by those payments, you know --
Q But it's certainly not on the order of magnitude of a health care reform bill that just completely changes one-sixth of the economy. I mean, these are very modest steps here. It wasn't long ago he was talking about --
MR. GIBBS: Chip, I don't --
Q -- dramatic change, and now he's talking about these little modest proposals.
MR. GIBBS: No, Chip, I think you'll hear the President talk about health care reform in the State of the Union. But, Chip, I don't think somebody struggling with high college costs and capping what they have to pay as part of their income so that they don't drown in those repayments -- or, God forbid, decide on the front end, you know what, I can't afford this, I can't afford to borrow the money; if I borrow the money I'll be crushed when I get out of college; why don't I just not go?
I think everybody would -- I think there are thousands of studies that -- I mean, how many thousands of studies do we have of, over a lifetime, what a college graduate makes versus somebody that didn’t go to college? And if somebody makes that decision not to go to college because of the cost that they think they're going to struggle with both while they're in college and when they get out, they may be making a very short-term decision with very, very long-term ramifications for where they're going to end up.
Not everybody can go to Europe and play basketball and go to the NBA. Some people are going to have to -- a lot of us are going to have to go to college to get a better job. And I think whether it is struggling with child care because you have to work longer, whether it is capping the payments that you have to make when you borrow money to go to college, or providing a genuine sense of security in retirement is important for the American people.
Q On health care, last week -- and I'm paraphrasing, but I believe it's accurate to say that you said the President still wants to pass and believes he can pass something on the level with -- something as comprehensive and -- as comprehensive as the bill that's now pending before the House and the Senate. Does he still feel that way?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q He's not backing off one iota?
MR. GIBBS: No. I mean, I think, again, you can refer to what a number of us said yesterday on the shows. The problems that surrounded health care, the reason the President endeavored to reform a system that wasn’t working for a lot of Americans, was because crushing health care costs, skyrocketing premiums for small businesses, getting crushed budgetarily in the federal government -- those problems have existed for quite some time, and even after Massachusetts they exist today.
Q But the President himself said what he wants to do is coalesce around the most popular elements. And to say that he also wants to pass this massive comprehensive reform just seem direct contradictions. Which does he want to do?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think the President believes that the circumstances that led him to undertake greater security for people in their health care costs, again, existed last year, last week and this week.
Q I have a few unrelated questions this morning. On Bernanke, this morning Senator Gregg said on MSNBC that he thought Bernanke was being scapegoated by colleagues on both sides of the aisle but that the President had fed that with his populist fervor. I wonder whether the President takes any responsibility or if there's any concern that he's playing with fire when he whips up kind of this populist fervor that then --
MR. GIBBS: Populist fervor based on?
Q Just anger at Wall Street, you know, they're paying themselves big fat bonuses, we want to tax them, we're going to get your money back, everybody is angry.
MR. GIBBS: I don't think any of what you just said the President would believe isn’t true, and I don't think he would -- I don't think many of the American people would believe that. I mean, again, take, for instance, what the President has -- the last two proposals the President has outlined: one, a fee on banks, reporting -- many of them reporting big profits, paying back in full the money lent to them by the American people --
Q I guess the question is, by stirring up anger at Wall Street, is there a downside to that --
MR. GIBBS: No, because I think in many ways, as we discussed and as I told Helen, I think that anger exists. That anger -- I doubt many proposals that the President has made over the course of the past year have brought together The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but each talked about the notion that the relationship in what banks are able to do if they're getting money at a discount rate of virtually nothing -- going back to your question about rates from the Fed -- using that money to do proprietary trading not for their clients but only for themselves, is a proposal that many on the left and the right agree is the right step forward.
And again all of this is built around, as I talked about last week and again today, the notion that we have to change those rules so that the American people never find themselves in a position of having to do in September and October of 2008 and other times in 2009 in preventing excessive risk-taking from threatening the entire economy, something that the American taxpayers weren't involved in but are footing the bill for. I think those are -- again, I think the proposals that the President outlined last week and in the weeks before that are very, very commonsense proposals.
Q On the State of the Union, do you all view it as a reset of his message?
MR. GIBBS: No, look, I think if you go back and -- I think if you go look at what the President talked about in Ohio on Friday and you look at a lot of what the President talked about throughout the first year and throughout the campaign, you'll find a remarkable amount of similarity. Quite frankly, I mean, in all honesty, go back to 2004 at the convention and you'll see a lot of that there, as well.
Q Will he be downplaying health care?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q I have one more, but I forgot. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I'm sure they'll yield you time --
Q I just remembered it now, but --
Q Go ahead.
Q You know what, we got a lot of first row time here today. (Laughter.)
Q Going back to the --
MR. GIBBS: I didn't say that.
Q Going back to your comments about Republican tactics, Robert, does the President see the State of the Union as an opportunity to extend an olive branch in any way or to ask them to change their tactics?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President will -- I do think the President will talk about, one, how we change the way Washington works; and also talk about the fact that there's no doubt we all have to work together.
Q What do you mean by "change" how it works?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I'm not going to get ahead of where the President is, but I think the President will talk about --
Q Is he going to explain it?
MR. GIBBS: He will in some detail.
Q Do you know how many Presidents have gone to Congress and made speeches with the theme "We have to change the way Washington works"?
MR. GIBBS: Forty-three, I guess. (Laughter.) And I'm including this presidency because I'm assuming that George Washington, since he set it up, felt they got it pretty darn right, and therefore, we're going to stick -- stay pat. So I'm obviously being facetious.
But, no, I assume -- I assume everybody does. But my sense is that a lot of the reason that that happens is because of the way this town tends to work. So I think it will bear mention again.
Q And on -- one more on the job numbers. It's sort of a moving target on how many jobs have been saved or created. Is it possible to just flat out say how many jobs have been created?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I point you to the report from --
Q Not saying -- but how many -- will you at some point be able to say how many jobs have been created, period?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as you know -- as you know -- well, I would simply point you to the reports that are gotten in by grant recipients that -- again, grant recipients that have to file paperwork about the employment impact of the money that they get.
Look, we're going to get new GDP numbers on Friday. And I think we saw, as a result of the Recovery Act, at the end of last quarter, the first positive economic growth in four quarters. Our hope is that you'll see another strong number on Friday. We've never in this country -- let me just not say that, because the economists might come back with a month for me. But there's no doubt that it is -- it's hard to create jobs in this country without positive economic growth, that without strong economic growth, strong job growth is next to impossible.
I think on Friday, we'll hopefully get a report card on particularly how the Recovery Act has helped create economic growth that will lead to job growth.
Q What's your reaction to reports that the New York Fed wanted national security status for some AIG details, and what does that say about transparency?
MR. GIBBS: I haven't seen that and I would point you to Treasury if you have specific questions -- or, quite frankly, the New York Fed. I haven't seen those reports.
Q Okay. And Senator Bayh said the President may propose a freeze in most federal discretionary spending in the State of the Union. Can you say anything about that?
MR. GIBBS: Look, the President, as I said earlier to Jennifer's question, the President will talk about ensuring that we begin to get our fiscal house in order, that we have to start making decisions like American families are making decisions about whether or not we can afford to spend as we have over the past many years. I don't want to get into the details of that right now from here, but suffice to say that will be part of the State of the Union -- discussing fiscal responsibility.
Q And has he reached out to Senator Kaufman at all now that we know that Beau Biden is not going to be running?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen a call. I have not seen a call.
Q Robert, is there a new deadline for health care?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I know of, no.
Q Is there a way forward?
MR. GIBBS: The President has continued to talk to leaders in Congress about the best path forward, yes.
Q Will he recommend one Wednesday?
MR. GIBBS: I would encourage you to tune in on Wednesday.
Q A couple things that were discussed with you on the Sunday show yesterday about Abdulmutallab. There was an AP report yesterday that said he was only interrogated for 50 minutes. You indicated -- said that you thought it was much longer than that. It then was characterized to some of our people it was up to 30 hours. Can you reconcile that discrepancy and describe how long -- what you know about that sequence of events and the degree to which adequate interrogation was undertaken?
MR. GIBBS: Well --
Q I know you represented that, but there seems to be -- 50 minutes and 30 hours is an enormously different time sequence.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think a timeline -- I think some of that information we're certainly trying to gather. I would say this, Major, that as I've said before and as I said I think the first time I had a chance to answer questions on this topic coming back from the holidays, the FBI did have an opportunity to interrogate Mr. Abdulmutallab; that they got intelligence, useful and actionable intelligence, that was then transmitted back to officials throughout the government. This was done by experienced FBI interrogators. And that's all I have on that.
Q Is 50 minutes just wrong?
MR. GIBBS: That's one of the questions that I have -- that I've asked somebody to pull up.
Q Okay. In the Justice Department release talking about this timeline, it said, "The National Security staff and the President's national security team were advised of the decision to try Abdulmutallab as a civilian, not as an enemy combatant." Do you know who that went through, and did that go all the way to the President?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with Ben on that. I don't -- I did not see that part of what you were talking about.
Q Okay. On the student loan, I may be very ignorant about this, but if you reduce the rate of payment, doesn't that make the loan over time more expensive for the student loan applicant?
MR. GIBBS: They'll have to -- I think they're doing a briefing -- I think they're doing a briefing call on this with Jared in a few minutes that I would point you to.
Q So that's not a problem?
MR. GIBBS: Ask Jared, and he'll go through the details of that.
Q Back on the question of changing the way Washington works, given how central that was to the campaign, why is he having to re-argue the case now? And is he going to do it in some kind of different way, or is this going back to the original argument he made during the campaign? I mean, he made this case. This is not a new idea for him.
MR. GIBBS: Right. I would posit that not all those ideas have been heard and implemented. I think that's one of the -- you'll hear him talk about reforming Washington. He talked about it in the -- he talked about it as a state senator, he worked on it as a U.S. senator, talked about it as a candidate, and will talk about it again as President.
Q In the themes you described, health care wasn't one of the main ones. Is it just going to be tucked into some of the others?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think when you hear the speech, you won't have to lean forward to hear a discussion about health care. I was giving -- I was giving broader themes, not a litany of issues.
Q And is he going to do events around the State of the Union? What other outside the country -- around-the-country stuff might he do?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I know we're traveling to Florida the day after the State of the Union on Thursday. And I think the President speaks to the Republican House Caucus, I believe, in Baltimore on Friday. Then there's travel I think the next week, as well. I'm trying not to get ahead of what we've already announced. And I'm trying to go through my head what we have already announced. (Laughter.) If any of that seems new, then I'd like to be a senior administration official. (Laughter.)
Q Yes, Robert, just briefly on -- back to deficit. Harry Reid proposed some new pay-go rules up on the Hill today, tougher rules that would be part of the debt limit raising. Does the President support that stuff? Is that --
MR. GIBBS: I would have to look at exactly -- not having seen exactly what he proposed, but I think that's part of what the Senate we hope will vote on in the next few days and the President supports.
Q One thing that did strike me about those rules is that they would also apply to extensions of unemployment benefits. Is that again something --
MR. GIBBS: Again, let me -- without having seen Senator Reid's proposal, I'm happy to have somebody look at it and get you an answer.
Q Can you enlighten us a little bit about how the President goes about this State of the Union address? Is he sitting down today, tomorrow with speechwriters? How much does he write? Does he practice with the teleprompter?
MR. GIBBS: They spent time over the weekend working on it.
Q They, who?
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, the President and the speechwriters, primarily with Jon and Ben -- both of whom were back in the Oval Office this morning, both with the President and with a larger group of advisors going through the speech. I, again, don't have tomorrow's schedule in front of me, but I believe that he'll do some of the practicing that you talk about, as well as continuing to write and work through different sections of the speech.
Q And is it more -- is it less of a laundry list of specifics that he wants to get and more thematic? Is it looking forward weeks ahead, months ahead, years ahead?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Ann, I think he'll do -- I think you'll see certainly aspects of it that are -- that he will discuss the themes that some of which I outlined here from a broader perspective. There will be mention of -- we'll go from themes to issues when we discuss creating jobs, some of the task force, Middle Class Task Force recommendations on things like that.
I think he'll provide people with an update on what -- where we've come from but how much we have yet to do to get our economy back on track, to restore our image in the world -- a host of the things that he talked about last year.
Q Guests in the gallery?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have a final list but we can certainly get that.
Q He will have some.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Robert, the legislative deficit commission the President endorsed on Saturday, does he see that as interchangeable with the executive commission or are they -- is it superior to anything?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think in many ways -- I think some of it would -- I think many of the characteristics might well overlap. A legislative commission was the preference of many on Capitol Hill. If that fails, then obviously other steps might be looked at in order to address what the President -- again, what the President will discuss in terms of a -- the medium and long term problems that we have with our debts and our deficits.
Q You said "medium and long term." Do you mean after the recession?
MR. GIBBS: Well, right. I mean, obviously there is -- economically to pull greatly back at a time of enormous economic uncertainty and recession I think almost any economist would tell you would have -- could possibly have a very negative impact on the continuing recovery, yes.
Q Robert, on the deficit commission, this proposal, certainly the larger issue has been around for a while. Why did the President choose now to come out and support this idea?
And second quick question, whether it is -- the proposal we see going through Congress or something you guys might implement through executive order? In the past, these types of commissions Presidents have ruled out ahead of times certain solutions. For example, on Social Security President Bush said no tax cuts. Is there anything at this point you guys are willing to rule out via tax -- or excuse me, tax increases -- via tax increases, entitlement benefit cuts, raise the retirement age, or is everything on the table?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't want to prejudge either a legislative or an executive one. I mean, obviously the President's statement comes prior to the Senate voting on a proposal, again, that Democrats and Republicans have outlined as a way forward in dealing with some larger and sometimes intractable budget debates. Again, I don't think it makes a lot of sense for me, before the legislative vote or before even the existence of a possible executive -- an executive commission, to get into talking about what would and wouldn’t be on the table. I think that is -- whether it's a legislative commission or some other commission, I think that's what that commission has to work through. Those are the debates.
Q And as far as when he came out now --
MR. GIBBS: I think because this is something that will come to a vote sometime this week.
Q Robert, thank you. Is the President prepared to, when he talked about changing Washington, talk in specific terms about what needs to happen to do that and what specific ways it can be done? For example, you know, entertain Republican ideas on tort reform as health care goes, or reaching out in a more bipartisan way --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know if tort reform would fall under the rubric of the way the legislative process works. Obviously the Secretary of Health and Human Services has set up a series of demonstration projects that deal with both health care costs and the legal system. But, again, I think the President will spend some time talking directly about ideas for reforming Washington, yes.
Q Specific ways it can be accomplished?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q President Karzai is heading to the Afghan conference in London this week, and he's saying that he's going to ask for the names of some Taliban people to be taken off the U.N. sanctions list in return for them laying down their arms and countenancing talks. Is this something the White House would be prepared to look at?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would simply say that you've heard General Petraeus, out of his efforts in Iraq, discuss similar type efforts in Afghanistan at political reconciliation. You’ve heard General McChrystal discuss the same thing. So obviously a similar path to what happened in Iraq each of those two individuals have talked through -- again, provided that whoever this is accepts the Afghan constitution, renounces violence, and publicly breaks with groups that advocate violence. That's I think what people except under the notion of reconciliation.
Q Two -- first on Afghanistan as well. Last week the U.N. put out a report saying that the amount of graft and kickbacks in Afghanistan is about $2.3 billion a year, which is about 25 percent of their gross domestic product. Who in the administration is really riding point on dealing with issues of corruption in Afghanistan?
MR. GIBBS: Well, there is obviously a group of people that are working on our Afghan policy, David. Let me figure out where that -- where some of that information, in terms of -- I haven't seen that report but I can certainly check on who that is
Q On another subject, back to Bernanke, it's just been reported that McCain has declared that he'll vote against that.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, to be honest with you, I thought that he'd said that a while ago, so I don't know of --
Q Well, he's made it official.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q Okay, but when you have conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats who are announcing opposition, presumably from a populist perspective, at the same time that the White House is raising questions about Wall Street, do you fear that you're getting sort of -- putting out a mixed message? It looks like you're defending Bernanke while also trying to talk tough on these other issues, banking issues and such. Is it muddy?
MR. GIBBS: I don't believe it is. Again, I think, as I said to Savannah, I think the proposal that the President outlined -- has outlined over the past couple of weeks enjoy great support among the American people because they're very commonsense policies in ensuring that taxpayers get their money back and that banks aren't allowed to engage in the type of behavior that we've seen contribute to an atmosphere of excessive risk.
Look, David, I don't -- I obviously haven't seen why Senator McCain said what he said. But, you know, I think the coalition that you mentioned, I think you could probably cobble together some type of message around a coalition of those also supporting him. So I wouldn't necessarily read into a ton of those.
Q What do you take from the opposition? I mean, is there a lesson that the White House is taking or learning that --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, as you heard me talk about certainly last week and I think even -- I think you've seen this from people that both support and oppose Chairman Bernanke. But there is still a frustration about where we are in this economy. The President, even in re-nominating him, believes -- shares some of that frustration, as well. We saw in the back end of 2008 and we saw it again manifested in the jobs numbers and the growth numbers that we saw both in the first quarter of 2009 -- well, throughout the first quarter of 2009, both in monthly jobs numbers and in terms of economic growth, the sheer size of the economic hole that we were in.
That's not to say that Chairman Bernanke didn't do a superb job in navigating those waters in 2009 and what the President believed was important to --
Q But their criticism is that he didn't adequately or properly see the hole to begin with.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President believes that Chairman Bernanke has done an extraordinary job in navigating a very difficult situation and deserves both -- deserved to be both re-nominated, approved for that re-nomination, and the White House believes that that indeed will be the case.
2:04 P.M. EST